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The Lowest Ebb
Blamed for the misdeeds of others, President Grant left his name on America’s sorriest Administration
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
Reformers were strengthened, however, by a Democratic House intent upon exposing Republicans, and scandals broke faster than ever. Secretary of War W. W. Belknap scurried to the White House one morning with the ink still wet on his resignation, which Grant hastily accepted “with great regret.” This was intended to forestall impeachment proceedings by a House committee that had found unquestionable proof that Belknap and his wife had been for years farming out Indian post traderships and surreptitiously sharing large profits from them. Among the beneficiaries, it developed, were Orvil Grant, the President’s brother, and a relative of Mrs. Grant’s. The Senate celebrated the centenary of American independence by dragging out the sordid details in an impeachment trial. Belknap was cleared by a strict party vote.
Next came the turn of Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson. He was discovered to have deposited some $320,000 in banks within four years. The only apparent explanation for the sudden riches of a relatively poor man was his membership in a Philadelphia firm that had also become suddenly rich from naval contracts. The House Judiciary Committee became too busy with the disputed presidential election of 1876 to decide on impeachment proceedings, but it did recommend the court-martialing of certain naval officers. Grant permitted Robeson to remain in his Cabinet.
During its last months the Grant Administration virtually came apart at the seams. Whole departments were demoralized or staffed with raw and inexperienced recruits. The Cabinet was in a turmoil of resignations and appointments, and the President was patently without a policy to his name and losing much popular respect. Investigating committees of Congress were busy digging up the disgraceful details of the relations between the White House and the Whiskey Ring. The only initiative Grant seemed to be capable of taking was in firing the two remaining reformers in his Cabinet, Bristow of the Treasury and Marshall Jewell of the Post Office. Within a single week the heads that rolled in addition to those of the Secretary of the Treasury and Postmaster General were those of a commissioner of internal revenue, a chief of special agents, a district attorney, a first auditor and fifth auditor of the Treasury, and a solicitor of the Treasury.
No Administration in our history has closed with such general demoralization as that of Grant. The only thing that distracted public attention from the bankruptcy of the national government was the near-bankruptcy of the electoral process in the Hayes-Tilden contested election. Its competing furor of war threats, vote selling, state purchasing, bribery, jobbery, and graft quite drowned out the noise the Grant Administration made in collapsing.
After it was all over and had begun to fade into the past, the Grant Administration began to seem more and more like something that had happened to Grant and the American people rather than something Grant or the American people had done, more a misfortune than a misdeed. Between the General and the people there grew a bond of bereavement and a mutual need for vindication. Both had seen their finest memories and the noblest drama of their lives sullied by a sordid and seemingly irrelevant epilogue. It was as if Vicksburg and the Wilderness had been traded in for Crédit Mobilier and the Gold Corner. And in their hearts the people knew that no final court of justice could recognize the validity of such a transaction. Somehow Vicksburg and the Wilderness had to be redeemed, and with them a hero and a dream.
They followed with absorbed interest the General’s fumbling quest for reassurance and vindication. Two years and more of wandering around the world collecting honors from crowned heads and listening to the cheers of crowds salved his pride and touched national pride. But that was not the answer. Nor was the movement in 1880 to elect him for a third term in the White House. It was quite as well that the movement failed, for it is almost certain that a third term would not have provided the needed redemption.
Redemption of a sort did come at the very end, heightened by tragedy and touched with a certain grandeur. It came, as fortune had come to Grant before, in the guise of catastrophe. His business partner, with whom he had trusted everything he had, turned out to be a crook, and Grant was left destitute instead of the millionaire he thought he was. On top of that he learned that the pain in his throat was cancer. With only a little more than a year of life remaining to him, he began a race with death to redeem both his fortune and his fame by writing his memoirs.
Through months of agonizing pain and sleepless nights he staved off death until his great and final task was finished, fighting always with the magnificent determination of the old Grant. And as he wrote, it was the old Grant of the war years that he relived in memory, revived in the people’s hearts, and in a measure redeemed for posterity.